7 min read

The Great Lakes, Part 1: Small towns & sand dunes on Lake Michigan

The Great Lakes, Part 1: Small towns & sand dunes on Lake Michigan

For two people who basically grew up vacationing on the Atlantic Ocean beaches of North Carolina, it's a little weird hearing the cries of seagulls, watching ships and sailboats, and walking around cute coastal towns – but in Michigan.

I lived in northern Illinois until I was about nine years old, so I remember the Great Lakes and how in the Midwest, people would go up north to cabins in Wisconsin or Minnesota or Michigan for summer vacations. But it's been a long time since I've been back, and I've never been to the west coast of lower Michigan, where we camped for two weeks after leaving Ohio.

Lake Michigan is like an ocean, but without the scent of saltwater in the air. It's colder, obviously. And the water is so clear and blue.

We chose a campground in the town of Pentwater, Michigan, not really knowing what to expect apart from a couple of nearby state parks that had sand dunes. But it ended up being a perfect, quiet place to spend two weeks – with a few surprises along the way.

Quick announcement: we now have an Instagram! Follow us @ajvanfam for more photos and videos from the road.

Campground life

We didn't choose the area for any particular reason – we just had a couple empty weeks before our reservation in Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula. So after looking at a ton of campgrounds in lower Michigan, we landed on Hill & Hollow Campground, which had great reviews and was close to the lake (and, apparently, two state parks with sand dunes).

One reviewer mentioned that it was the best laid-out campground he'd ever stayed in, and although we don't have a lot to compare it to yet, I believe him. Hill & Hollow was big but quiet, with a good amount of space and privacy between most sites. We walked all around and didn't really see a bad site in the entire campground. There were nice looking bathrooms (didn't use) and a pool (also didn't use – too cold) and walking trails through the woods. A lot of the RV sites looked like they were for long-term or seasonal campers – they had full wooden patios with decorations and storage sheds.

Over the weekend, the place filled up, but it was never overwhelming. A boy scout troop camped near us for a couple nights one weekend, which was entertaining. And there were lots of little kids riding bikes all around the campground. But during the week, it cleared out and was so quiet and peaceful.

Since we were settled in for two weeks, it started to feel a bit more like normal life. We caught up on work during the day and binged Jury Duty at night – we hadn't watched anything new on TV in ages. We cooked dinners and walked Hollie on the trails. The weather was sunny the first week, but turned gray and chilly the second, so we were inside the Airstream more than we'd been the previous two weeks. (We're not used to 50 degrees in mid-June).

Exploring the area

So it was a pretty quiet and chill time overall, but we still did a good amount of exploring and enjoying the area.

The cute little town of Pentwater was right down the road from our campsite. About 20 minutes north was the slightly bigger town of Ludington, and 20 minutes south was the Silver Lake Sand Dunes. In between was basically nothing but farmland, windmills, and smaller lakes and rivers. The towns were small but full of surprises.


On a Friday night, we went to Ludington to go out to eat and watch the sunset. But when we got to town, the main street was blocked off for a big party – Ludington's 150th anniversary, which we had no idea about. So we went down another street to find somewhere to park, and stumbled across... the Budweiser Clydesdales!!

The horses had apparently stopped in Ludington for the 150th celebration (I guess they go on tour around the country?) They were in the parade and apparently delivered beer to local restaurants and bars. When we saw them, they were in a parking lot in front of the small crowd taking pictures, and then loaded back into their trailer. It was so random but really cool to stumble across them.

We ate dinner at the awesome Ludington Bay Brewing, and watched the sun set over the harbor. There's a really pretty park and marina in town, where the SS Badger (a huge, old ferry that takes passengers and vehicles across the lake to Manitowoc, Wisconsin) is moored at night. And as a bonus, we got to see fireworks for the 150th anniversary celebration on our way out of town.

Just north of the town is Ludington State Park, where we explored a bit after work one night. The road into the park is beautiful, along the lake with sand dunes rising up on each side. We drove around and ran Hollie on the beach, which she loved.

Silver Lake Sand Dunes

The main activity around here is heading out on the dunes. Locals drive around in their Jeeps and trucks, tailgating on the lake and climbing the big sand hills. And visitors can rent ATVs and dune buggies (for a price – it's expensive!)

The dunes are amazing to see; such an interesting and unexpected landscape up here! The only place I've seen something similar is at Jockey's Ridge in the Outer Banks. We really want to go back and rent a dune buggy sometime (thought about taking our truck out, but were nervous about getting stuck). This time around, we opted to do Mac Wood's Dune Rides instead – and it was SO fun!

Mac Wood's has been a family-owned business since 1930, and is a super popular thing to do in the area. It's a 40-minute tour of a private area of the sand dunes between Silver Lake and Lake Michigan. About 20 people sit in rows in a "dune scooter" that flies through trails over the dunes. Our guide was funny and the ride was a total blast, with incredible views of the lakes surrounded by seemingly endless sand.

Highly recommend checking out the dunes and giving Mac Wood's a visit if you're in the area (and if you need something to eat after – go to Silver Lake Chicken Shack for wings. You won't regret it).


Pentwater is basically one main street along the waterfront, full of cute shops and boutiques and ice cream stores. We stopped by after the dune ride, and stumbled across another fun surprise – a Chocolate Walk!

You pay $20 (for charity), you're given a map and a souvenir bag, and then you walk around to all the participating businesses on the Chocolate Walk and they give you chocolate. We ended up going to all of the businesses (there were almost 30 of them) and had a huge bag of different chocolates at the end. It was such a fun way to experience the town and visit all the local shops.

Our last night in Pentwater, we grabbed dinner at Bortell's Fisheries – a famous local place that's been in business since 1898. They sell fried fish dinner baskets as well as smoked and fresh fish. We ordered fried whitefish and lake perch and ate at a lakeside park across the street – it was delicious and the view was beautiful.

That's a wrap on this beautiful little corner of lower Michigan. I have a feeling we're going to discover many, many more unexpected places to visit again someday. But we left the "mitten" last weekend, crossed the Mackinac Bridge, and are now in da UP, eh! We'll be here for another week or so – see ya on the next blog.